Monday, 30 March 2015

USA & Iran - It Isn't About the Nukes

Two articles have allowed me to understand the US-Iran dynamic and why Obama is so keen to seal the deal.  Of course, the Telegraph story really is the answer. which was met with dismay by an online North Sea oil forum tonight: predicting more woe for the UK sector.

To begin.  Israel in recent weeks have been making all out efforts to derail the US-Iranian talks, wheeling out the old adage that Iran is within five years of developing nuclear weapons.  It is old because that is what enemies of the Iranian regime have been saying since the 1980s.  If the Mullahs of Tehran really wanted nuclear weapons, they are really taking a leisurely time about it.

The first article is this from Arutz Sheva US Declassifies Documents Revealing Israel's Nuclear Program.  In diplomatic terms, the US deciding to release details of the now-aging Sampson nuclear weapons system is a real (but not widely publicised) slap in the face for Israeli complaints over Iranian nuclear research.  In no uncertain terms, the Israel government are being called a bunch of hypocrites by Obama.  It is a particularly sharp rebuke because the Sampson system is now elderly and in need of either upgrade or replacement.  The US is reminding Israel that if that is going to happen, they will need American help.

So if the US are willing to put Israel in its place over these negotiations, there must be something very big at stake.  Indeed there is.  The Telegraph story makes it clear that big oil wants to move into Iran after being forced to withdraw from the country following American-led boycotts.  Now the story says that the oil majors want to return and that is indeed the case.  Serious money will also be made in repairing Iran's existing fields though.  They have not had free access to Western technology since the late 1970s and the wells are seriously inefficient.  It would be no exaggeration to say that hundreds of billions of dollars of business will be generated for US companies if the barriers to trade and technology transfer come down and Iranian fields are resurveyed, repaired and reworked in the decades to come.  Companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton are set to be major beneficiaries.  

Where does this leave the UK sector?   On the up side, a lot of British-based companies, many based around Aberdeen will be able to benefit from the opening of Iran to business.  As this time, they are simply not allowed to trade.  In 2013, BP had, at least for a time, closed the Rhum field in the North Sea as it is partly owned by the Iranian National Oil Company.  The financial sector in both Edinburgh and London will also gain.  Skilled individuals will doubtless find work, and in an environment much more stable and safe than to be found in neighbouring Iraq.  The down side however is large.  The North Sea is expensive to explore and develop.  When it comes to oil, it isn't the price of a barrel that is the only factor.  Thought is first given to how much will it cost to extract the stuff and then ship it to market.  With calm waters, large areas of land-based fields (cheaper to develop than offshore) and sitting on the world's major tanker route, when Iran opens for business, it will only make the UK offshore by comparison more expensive and even less attractive to new investment.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Germanwings 4U9525

Tonight, French prosecutors investigating the downing of Germanwings flight 4U9525 over the Alps, announced that the aircraft containing 150 people was crashed deliberately by the co-pilot, twenty seven year old Andreas Lubitz.  It is not thought that his motives were political, so it will not be counted as a act of terrorism.

My heart goes out to those who have lost family members, friends and colleagues, and also those people whose job is to recover the wreckage and bodies.  I am sure anybody hearing the news will feel the same.

I am not writing from any viewpoint of expertise on aviation, just as a person who travels a lot in a wide variety of aircraft, all the way from four-person helicopters through to A380 super-jumbos.  The truth is that every time I get in an airplane, there is an unspoken contract between myself and the pilots that they want to live & want to see the passengers, myself included delivered safely.

It therefore stands that if the pilot ever feels that they are unable to fulfil that contract, that person should seek immediate help and not fly.  I don't know the pilot training and profiling currently entails but I do know that ever time I fly, I am trusting the people up front with my life.

There are obviously grave implications for any pilot who turns around to their bosses and voices such dreams.  This is the point where my knowledge fails because I don't know what procedures exist to help staff in mental distress.  Are there any?  I have no idea.  If there isn't, then a pilot confessing to dark fantasies, such as crashing a plane, are instantly out of work.  This is a powerful incentive for them to remain secret until they are either overcome or are acted upon, as it appears to be in this tragic case.

What I am asking therefore, is not only should such a service exist for pilots but also that pilots are confident that in turning towards help will not lead to them losing the jobs, which for many is also a vocation.   If it were proved that Andreas Lubitz crashed this plane on purpose (and I am sure once the second black box is recovered and the control movements analysed, we will have a definitive answer) then his actions led to a most terrible betrayal of trust.  It is as if a doctor decided to murder the entire hospital ward under their care.   It seems the young man had lost any good of his intellect.

On my facebook page this evening, a friend of mine said she regretted booking her flight to Turkey now and that a little trust had died tonight with the news. I naturally compared air travel with probabilities of being injured in one's own home or in the street but she is right insofar when a passenger gets on a plane it is a very real act of faith.  Faith in the pilots, in the crew, in the maintenance teams, in the management, in the air traffic systems and in the manufacturers.  Tens of thousands of people are responsible daily for the lives of millions.  All it takes is the action of one to destroy all that faith and undermine all that trust.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The End of Top Gear?

It seems that Jeremy Clarkson is unable to save himself.  He was suspended tonight after what the BBC described as a "fracas".   Later on Twitter, there was a tweet from him inviting applications for a new Top Gear presenter.  Fair play for the gallows humour mate.

I say "mate", not because Clarkson is one personally (and one suspects with our differing political views, every likely to be one) but because the relationship between the three presenters embodies an ideal of male friendship.  It is easy to see that the bond between Clarkson, May and Hammond isn't manufactured.   When one has a success, it is naturally denigrated by the others.  When they are genuinely annoyed at each other, especially during the Top Gear adventure specials, it shows.  While being intensely British, it is friendship that gives Top Gear franchise its international appeal and, of course, turned it into a huge money maker for the corporation.

Now though, all of that hangs in the balance tonight.  The remaining three episodes of the season have, for the time being, been taken off our screens.  All because, according to reports, one of the mates threw a punch at a producer.  It would have to be Clarkson.  If May or Hammond had done it, it would have been awful but probably survivable.  Nope, it was the bad boy who was already drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.  Striking somebody in a junior position is particularly despicable.  If true, I cannot see how Clarkson can come back from this.

So if Clarkson goes, what happens to the others?  Can a new presenter be really introduced into the long-standing dynamic?  I doubt it.  What may happen is that the current series becomes the last.  I don't think it will be a total end to Top Gear, just it will be reincarnated into a new form, with new presenters.  A bit like Blue Peter.

Why do I say this?  It is kind of hard to see where the current format with the existing presenters can go from here, even without the latest incident.  They have driven the finest machines across the face of the globe from the North Pole to the Amazon rain forests.  The only thing left would be to recreate Scott's expedition to the South Pole - but even that would be a bit like their Arctic adventure.  Besides, the guys are getting old.  Goodness knows, I travel a lot in my job and I know how damn exhausting it can be, never mind all the hacking at jungly tendrils and bridge-building across the River Coq.  Even if it is the magic of television and others do the really hard work, some of the latest season has reminded me less of high adventure and more Last of the Summer Wine.

It is quite possible that the BBC high command might make a clean sweep: leave the format fallow for a year and return under a new regime with new faces.

It might be time.

[previous blog: Clarkson, Childhood and Eenie Meenie.]

Monday, 2 March 2015

Rights and Accommodation

In Elizabeth Longford's biography of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, there is a brief passage in the first volume where she discusses the Duke's political outlook.  As a Tory, (although Wellington was no fan of party politics) he did not belief in rights but rather in pragmatism and accommodation.

"He had an English taste for improvisation and flexibility, highlighted by a constitution that was not written down....  With accommodation went a certain permissiveness for which his army was grateful."

I believe that in this nation, we live in a time when we are in danger of losing both our rights and accommodation.  Conservative distaste for rights have been longstanding but have always being seasoned with pragmatic accommodations.  This manifests itself in Theresa May's abortive (thanks to the Liberal Democrats) attempts to reintroduce the so-called Snoopers' Charter.  Riding roughshod over individual rights, technology and power of government means that that we can no longer rely upon accommodation, (ie. good will) of the powerful to get along.  We need rights, enshrined in constitutional law and while the British constitution remains flexible and unwritten, we have the backup of European law to frame our rights.  It is a good composite system that works.

The United Kingdom is also in grave danger of losing our accommodation.  This is most manifest in the nationalists parties: UKIP and the SNP.

Evolving from a party of anti-European Union, UKIP has evolved into a xenophobic Frankenstein .  In short, there is no accommodation: neither for rights, nor foreigners nor even for that most prized British quality, pragmatism.  This lack of accommodation goes across the left-right spectrum of party politics so that is the reason why UKIP is able to pick up support from both Conservative and Labour supporters.  Labour has been historically been pretty good on rights (well, until the Blair-Brown years and New Labour that is) but never had the right's mindset of accommodation.

One cannot accuse the SNP of not being tactically pragmatic , being in effective coaltion with the Conservatives during their first term in goverment, but one can certainly slam their lack of accommodation.  Only today, it was revealed that new leader Nicola Sturgeon has drafted  draconian guidelines for behaviour of their own MPs, going well beyond the usual party discipline, and includes disciplinary action for being critical of party policy, colleagues and leadership.  If one will not trust one's own MPs, what does that say for the party's view on the rest of society?    From behaviour of many of it's supporters up to the run of the SNP defeat at the Referendum, it is clear there is no accommodation of views dissenting from their own.

Thus I come to invite you to think carefully about the type Britain you want this May.  If you value twin virtues of rights and accommodation, then there is still one party that enbodies both of these: the Liberal Democrats.